CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ Through the first half of the season, the Tennessee Titans had been completely inconsistent.
But in Sunday's 30-3 hammering of the Carolina Panthers, the Titans stayed consistent throughout.
Consistent in their game plan, consistent in their execution and consistent in all three phases of the game, playing perhaps their most complete game of the year in the process.
“I think we executed the game plan,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “The defensive line played well, and our offense started scoring points, we sort of made them one-dimensional. And that was the biggest key today. The defensive line got rolling. The offense played well and special teams had a big punt return. Everybody played within the scheme today and we won."
Indeed, the Titans sacked Panthers star rookie quarterback Cam Newton five times Sunday, started their scoring off with Marc Mariani's 79-yard punt return and got both 100 yards receiving from Damian Williams and a 100 yards rushing from Chris Johnson in the process.
Coach Mike Munchak had told his team before the game that there were eight games left and for them to consider it a new season after a 4-4 star.
“We talked about that last night even that we were wiping the slate clean and starting over. We've got an eight-game season left,” Munchak said. “That's all we can worry about. From what we went through the last eight weeks, we should feel more comfortable with each other, with our offensive and defensive schemes and take that with us into this game.”
With the win, the Titans helped atone for going 1-2 in their most recent homestand, and stayed alive in the running for a possible playoff bid in the coming weeks.
“We needed that. We've just got to keep building on it, keep building from here and keep going,” tackle David Stewart said.
The defense set the tone early, forcing Newton and the Panthers to go three-and-out, and then cashing in with Mariani's punt return for a touchdown for a quick 7-0 lead without the offense ever seeing the field.
“I caught that thing and looked up and we had it blocked so well, I've got to give those guys a lot of credit,” Mariani said. “They're working hard for me. We knew it was a matter of time, because we've been close so many times, and it was fun to finally get into the open field and break one.
“I think that was huge for us, especially first quarter out the gate to build momentum and take over so early was huge. A lot of credit to those guys (blocking for me); it was a huge play for us.”
The big plays kept coming for the Titans, turning away one of the Panthers' few serious threats on the day. Newton hit tight end Greg Olson with a pass down to the 8-yard line, but Will Witherspoon hit the Carolina tight end, forcing a fumble that Akeem Ayers recovered to snuff out the potential tying score.
Tennessee's offense then wasted no time in taking advantage, needing just six plays to go 92 yards. Matt Hasselbeck connected with Williams on the left sideline, and the second-year wide receiver escaped from a couple of poor-angle tackles and raced 43 yards to put the Titans up 14-0.
“They brought the blitz. They brought the double A-gap blitz,” Williams explained. “I had to peak early, and Matt just put it on me, and they just missed a couple of tackles.”
From that point, the rout was on as the Titans continued to tack on points, getting field goals from Rob Bironas of 36 yards in the second quarter and 49 yards in the third quarter. The Panthers managed only Olindo Mare's 29-yard field goal, and that score came courtesy of Chris Gamble's interception that set the Panthers up at the Tennessee 19, trailing 17-0.
The Titans' pressure, which had hounded Newton all day, responded on first down with a sack by William Hayes and Sen'Derrick Marks for a 7-yard loss and forcing Carolina to have to settle for three.
An obviously frustrated Newton finished the day 23 of 40 for 212 yards and one interception. And while he ran for 55 yards on seven carries, the Titans did a decent job of containing him, and also taking away his favorite target in Steve Smith, who had just five catches for 33 yards.
“It was a lot of different looks where we got our pressure from. It was a three-man rush a lot of times and we got two sacks from it. Basically, we tried to make him hold the football, and the guys kept rushing. So that was good for us,” Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said.
While the defense harassed Newton, the Titans offense, with a comfortable lead, used the second half to feed struggling running back Chris Johnson in hopes of finding him a rhythm. And in the second half, CJ began getting bigger chunks of yardage, finishing with 130 yards and a TD on 27 carries.
“That was really the key, more runs, more opportunities. Our offensive line and receivers did a good job of staying on their guys and getting me some creases,” Johnson said.